The Front Line of Reform

For alumni working in prison reform and providing legal services to the incarcerated, the work of Attica attorneys and activists continues.
“There’s a through-line between the Columbia University protests in 1968 and events in prisons that led to Attica. There was organizing among lawyers that hadn’t happened before. The Attica attorneys taught me and those in my generation the meaning of the slogan ‘Attica means fight back.’ The only way to get a scrap of transparency and accountability from the government was, and is, to fight back, and to fight back in a sustained way in solidarity with your clients.”
Gideon Oliver ’03, the son of Attica Brothers Legal Defense attorneys and a mentee of Elizabeth Fink ’73 and Daniel Meyers ’66, now keeps a full docket of criminal defense cases for clients arrested while protesting.
“The Attica uprising is a reminder that confining people in deplorable, inhumane conditions is not simply harmful to those in custody, it debases everyone involved in the process: guards, judges, prosecutors, and ultimately all of us for whom those officials work. All of society played a role in allowing those conditions to fester, and all of us have a role in rolling back the harms from mass incarceration today.”
Robert Quackenbush ’09, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, founded by William Hellerstein, has helped the medically vulnerable leave prisons on home confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic and ensured that vaccines are made available to the incarcerated.
“As we address the injustices of the criminal legal system, it is important to recognize that those injustices are amplified in the immigration system. Access to counsel is one tool that can disrupt the pipeline from arrest to deportation, combating the unfair double punishment often inflicted upon Black immigrants and other immigrants of color as a result of contact with criminal law enforcement. We should, instead of relying on criminalization, advance policies that support due process and the availability of resources to live safe and healthy lives.”
Shayna Kessler ’10, senior planner at Vera Institute of Justice, a national criminal justice organization, works to create universal access to counsel for people in detention and facing deportation.
“Attica showed just how hard those in power work to maintain the criminal justice system. After Attica, the Nixon administration was committed to making sure that this type of prison uprising would not happen again. Rather than improving conditions in prisons, they made measures to quell prison activism. If there is ever going to be any change to this system, we all must be just as committed and just as involved as those who are trying to uphold it.”
Balfour Takyi ’18 worked at an after-school program before attending law school, with the goal to change outcomes for young people. Now, as a law fellow at Youth Represent, he’s continuing that work, helping to remove the barriers that prevent his clients from reintegrating into their communities.
“The Attica Uprising was a demonstration of what happens when the voices of the oppressed are unheard for far too long. The answer was to no longer tolerate these injustices against the incarcerated and to no longer remain silent. I hold this spirit in my own work by advocating tirelessly on behalf of youth from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and ensuring I act as a disrupter and educator in spaces that fail to recognize how embedded systemic racism is across numerous institutions within our society.”
Steffi Jean-Jacques ’18, after interning at the Innocence Project and the NAACP during law school, is now a staff attorney at Youth Represent, where she helps young people affected by the criminal legal system find fulfillment and self-determination on their own terms.